Mindful of God while Suffering Unjustly
There is probably only one thing in life that feels as natural and unavoidable as breathing, and that is getting even. Continue reading . . .
There is probably only one thing in life that feels as natural and unavoidable as breathing, and that is getting even. I’m serious. It’s instinctive to fallen human nature. We don’t have to think about it or plan it or write into our daily calendars: “Get even today, preferably before noon.” We just do it.
I suppose one of the things that makes it feel so natural and so hard to resist is that it seems justified. Exacting revenge feels right.
Think about it. As I talk with people who are experiencing anger or resentment or perhaps a critical and unforgiving spirit toward another person, they will almost always defend themselves by speaking of the unjust treatment they’ve received. They will explain how badly they’ve been treated or how others let them down or abandoned them or took advantage of their kindness and used it against them, or manipulated them in some way.
There is deeply entrenched in our souls a belief that if I’ve been exploited or unfairly treated I have the right to expose that person and bring them to some form of justice. And I can use any means at my disposal: slander, public rebuke, an angry e-mail, perhaps threatening them in some intimidating way. “After all, they deserve this, don’t they? There is such a thing as justice, you know.”
It feels so understandable. And it’s so easy. It doesn’t take much effort to get even. Furthermore, it doesn’t feel “safe” to just let it go and decide to bless the offender rather than curse them. After all, what if they take advantage of my kindness and repeat the offense?
It is precisely this situation that Peter addresses in 1 Peter 2:18-25. Here are his words.
“Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:18-25).
But before we go any further we need to make sure that it actually applies to us today. After all, he is addressing “servants” and their relationship with their “masters” (v. 18). Who are these people and how does the advice Peter gives apply to you and me?
Peter doesn’t actually use the standard NT word for “slave” in this text. He uses a word that points more specifically to a household servant. Part of our problem is that we are so accustomed to thinking of the horrors of “racial” slavery that existed in our country in the 18th and 19th centuries that anytime the word “slave” is used it radically affects our response.
First century slavery was of a different order. There wasn’t anything good about slavery in the first century, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as what we’re familiar with in the history of our own country. Slavery based on race or skin color simply didn’t exist, or if it did, it was found only rarely. Household servants or slaves were often there because they were captives from a war. Others fell into slavery as a result of economic indebtedness. Still more were slaves because they were born of slaves. But in general they were well-treated. Yes, there were instances of brutality and oppression, but many of the sort of people Peter addresses were educated and professionally trained and were often paid for their services. They could even purchase their freedom.
But let’s not paint too rosy a picture! Their slavery was still, in most cases, involuntary and their legal rights and economic choices were greatly limited. Some have tried to find a parallel between the first century “servant” and his/her “master” and today’s “employee” / “employer” relationship. Clearly they aren’t the same, but perhaps the principle is applicable in both instances.
In any case, Peter has in view a situation in which one person has authority over another and exploits that position of power to oppress and even physically abuse the other. What should our response be? Are there truths or moral principles found in Peter’s advice that might help us today even though the social situation is decidedly different? Yes, I think so.
Observe that Peter envisions two scenarios: (1) In the first scenario, you do something wrong or sinful and you suffer for it. You might even get beaten up. Bearing up under that is no big deal. That’s no great moral accomplishment. If you deserve the punishment you received, your perseverance is hardly something that warrants praise or commendation. (2) But in the second scenario, you do what is right and good and you fulfill your responsibilities, yet you suffer anyway. In fact, it may be that you suffer not simply in spite of doing good but precisely BECAUSE you did what was good. If then, when you suffer, you bear up patiently and do not retaliate or seek revenge, there is “credit” or value in your response.
Folks, don’t miss what Peter says. He says that when you do what is “good” (v. 20b) you still may suffer. You may do what is right and be criticized for it. You may act honorably and be treated dishonorably for it. You may go out of your way to act righteously and sacrificially and yet no one takes note, no one is appreciative; in fact, they may actually turn it against you.
When that happens you may experience at least two powerful reactions in your soul.
(1) Some people use this as an excuse to abandon God and the church. Do you want to know why so many people walk away from God and from the church? Do you want to know why some of you are thinking about doing that very thing?
It’s because you’ve done what is “good” (v. 20b). You’ve worked hard to obey God and to trust him and to give your life to him. You said No when friends tried to get you to go where you knew God didn’t want you to go and you said No when friends tried to get you to do what you knew God didn’t want you to do. You’ve avoided internet porn. You didn’t sleep with your girlfriend. You paid your taxes. You show up on time for work. You haven’t used the F word in public.
And what have you to show for it? You got destroyed. You got hammered. You lost your job. Your husband walked out on you. Your child rebelled and started using drugs. The IRS audited you.
“God! What’s with this? Is that how you repay those who obey you? Is this how you reward obedience? Is this what I get for doing good? The world has offered me a better deal. So too have all the prosperity preachers that I see on TV. I’m out’a here.” The bitterness and resentment and apparent injustice of it all are too much to bear.
(2) The second urge you may feel is that powerful desire to get even, to vindicate yourself, to declare, “Wait a minute! I have rights too!”
As I said, it feels utterly contrary to fallen human nature to do anything other than exact revenge. I suspect that quite a few of you are very uncomfortable with what Peter is saying; you find it unreasonable, if not downright ridiculous, to expect someone to humbly submit beneath the unjust treatment of an employer or someone else in authority. No one wants to appear weak. No one wants to be seen as having been taken advantage of. Won’t we simply encourage wicked and abusive people to continue in their ways if we don’t stand up to them and make them pay for what they’ve done?
Note: Peter is certainly not saying, and neither am I, that you shouldn’t establish boundaries in your relationship with others, or that you shouldn’t avail yourself of legal protection where it exists. Peter’s counsel here does not mean that if someone chooses to hurt or abuse you that you are to lie down and play the doormat for their sin and simply allow them to trample on you. No. Peter’s counsel here does not mean that if there is legal protection available to you that you ignore it or not avail yourself of it.
You may recall in Acts 16:35-40 that Paul demanded an apology from the authorities in Philippi when they unjustly and wrongly beat him and Silas. Paul appealed to his Roman citizenship as a way of protecting himself from unjust prosecution.
But the “servants” to whom Peter wrote had little if any legal rights or recourse. They couldn’t hire lawyers. They couldn’t dial 911 if they were being beaten. They couldn’t entrust their situations to an arbitrator. They couldn’t file a restraining order or a lawsuit.
The point, then, is this. Take advantage of the law and the protection it provides when it is available. Take steps to set boundaries in relationships so that you do not encourage or empower others to continue in their sin.
But, if in spite of these boundaries and in spite of these laws you suffer for doing what is right, bear up under it without reprisal or revenge or retaliation.
Why? We’ll answer that question in the next article.